November 6, 2016
As a church of the "Reformation," why do we celebrate the "Feast of All Saints," and who are our Saints?
The Church of England as we understand it began with the reforms of Elizabeth I at the restoration of the Church after the reign of Mary Tudor. Under Henry, the structure, ecclesiology, theology, and liturgy were essentially those of Rome, but without the Pope having authority in England.
At the restoration Elizabeth, who was reared as a Reform Christian under the tutelage of Protestant theologians, supported by the Richard Hooker's monumental work The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity reshaped the church to pronounce a mostly Protestant Theology, while allowing for greater flexibility in the peripheries of the liturgy, a simpler calendar, which recognized the great Feasts while greatly simplifying the number of special days, and retaining both the seven sacraments and the offices of the tree-fold ministry of Bishops, Priests, and deacons.
All Saints Day, admittedly, was not one of the great feasts of the primitive church or the church of the classical period. But early in the development of "Christianity" Christians seemed drawn to remembering those who sacrificed greatly for their belief in Christ, especially those who were martyred. In that time, individual days were set aside for martyrs. When Diocletian became emperor in the third century he began the first empire-wide persecutions of Christians. This increased the numbers of martyrs to the point that Bishops advocated for a special day to highlight the memories of all the martyrs, now almost too numerous to remember.
By the fourth century, Alexandria, the seat of a Metropolitan Bishop (who also was called il Papa, just like the Bishop of Rome) used the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, still the date in the Eastern Church. It took until the early seventh century before the date of November 1 was firmly established as the date in Rome and in the ninth century a chapel was dedicated to "All the Saints" at the Basilica of St. Peter's in Rome. By then the veneration of Saints was a firm and growing part of the piety of the Church in the West.
The Church of England never fully lost the honoring of especially notable Christians such as Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist, and other luminaries. The church did, however, approach their honoring in a much more circumscribed manner than the Church in Rome, and a great emphasis was made of noting that all who had been called to and received the salvation of Christ are (s)aints, not just those whose exemplary lives were thought to gain them a place nearer to God in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our tradition has primarily focused on the sainthood of all believers which keeps us solidly Anglican, with a foot in both the Reform and Catholic Traditions.
The Rev. David Lucey